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Putting Deer on a Diet

It's a never-ending battle: You design a winning landscape, your clients are thrilled-and then the local deer population dines on the newly installed garden. You can tear out the damaged plants and start over again, but what do you plant this time?




Chasmanthium latifolium

You've tried scaring them away. You've tried fencing them out. Somehow, deer still can find a way to their favorite snacks and ravage a garden seemingly overnight. There's a plethora of reliable, reasonably priced, readily available products on the market, but your clients want to protect the wildlife as well as their gardens.



Digitalis purpurea 'Dalmatian Purple'
Photos courtesy of Walters Gardens Inc., unless otherwise noted.

Although it may seem like a no-win situation, if you work in an area where there's increasing deer pressure - and who doesn't these days? - you can choose from a broad range of plants that aren't appetizing to deer. Keeping in mind that a ravenous doe will find nearly anything palatable, it's certainly worth your time and your clients' money to specify selections that have proved to be less tasty than others.



Ligularia 'Bottle Rocket'

Lists of purportedly deer-resistant plants abound, and most are based on observation rather than scientific trials. Over a number of seasons, however, a keen observer develops a time-tested sense of what's savory - and what survives.



Is this the sweetest thing ever? Yes, until it grows up and starts munching your profits.
Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station Archive, USDA Forest Service, SRS; Bugwood.org

Here, then, are suggestions for plants that may reduce the temptation and drive deer to look for a tastier meal elsewhere. A couple of caveats must accompany this abbreviated list: One, depending on conditions and region, a few may be considered to have invasive tendencies. If there's any question, choose another. And two, there's never a guarantee that pesky critters will simply walk away. But it's worth trying a new plant.



Dicentra spectabilis

So they put up a fence. Not just any fence: The arboretum built a 3-mile-long barrier along the property's southern border. It stands 10 feet tall and is composed of 8 feet of woven wire mesh topped by two wires strung along its length. The galvanized, high-tensile steel structure cost $260,000 - funded by a private donation - and is similar to fencing used to deter deer at orchards, vineyards and nurseries throughout Minnesota. The mesh is an effective deterrent, but it's not plainly visible from a distance.

Fencing them out



White-tailed deer and their brethren have seemingly insatiable appetites, but specifying plants observed to be deer-resistant may send them in search of a tastier meal elsewhere.
Photo courtesy of Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

Good fences don't always make good neighbors.

After the University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen suffered extraordinary losses last winter - by some accounts the worst deer damage in 25 years - officials were fed up. Deer had stripped the arboretum's shrub walk of vegetation, munching shoots and killing arborvitae and yew, dining on the buds of azalea shrubs, dwarf conifers, hostas and countless other plants. Plantings near the facility's visitor center and the main parking lot also were devastated. And despite the fact that the arboretum's research orchards had been protected, valuable research projects were put in jeopardy.



Asclepias tuberosa

Or so they say. Neighbors are up in arms about the fence, describing it as prison-like and objecting to the shininess of the poles used to support the structure. Residents across the street from the arboretum's newest deer deterrent claim they had requested that wooden poles be used - they're not as sturdy or long-lasting - and that the fence be landscaped to soften the industrial look of steel and wire. The arboretum plans to plant along the structure in the near future.



Oenothera missouriensis

In a sort of modern-day public opinion poll, readers of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and other local papers commented online, telling residents who complained about the fence they "need to get over it" and find something else to worry about.